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Go Saddle the Sea

Joan Aiken



  About the Book

  Title Page


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  About the Author

  Also by Joan Aiken


  About the Book

  A swashbuckling Spanish adventure!

  When twelve-year-old orphan Felix Brooke receives a blood-stained letter from his dead father, he embarks on a brave mission to track down his long-lost family.

  With only his trusty mule for company, Felix must face treacherous mountains, stormy seas and deadly swamps. Only one thing is certain – he’s heading for the adventure of a lifetime.

  Go saddle the sea, put a bridle on the wind, before you choose your place.



  In which I set out to seek my fortune

  The sheep had been brought down from the mountains, because the year was dwindling; winter would soon be here. That’s how I know it must have been around September, my saint’s month, when Pedro came and rattled my door at black of night.

  You could hear the sheep a-crying and a-calling, near and far; the dark night was riddled by their thin, peevish voices, even louder than the wind – and that was loud enough. The sound kept me wakeful. Also my bed was cold as a marsh, for there had been weeks of rain before the weather turned wintry. I had not even thrust my feet down to the bottom yet, so I had no particular objection to getting up again. But I did wonder what brought Pedro to this part of the house. He was the cook’s great-nephew, and he slept on a shelf in the kitchen, which was a good ten minutes’ run from my quarters on the upper floor.

  I had a whole room of my own – lucky Felix! – with two windows that pierced clean through the city wall, and looked southwards towards the mountains, the Sierra de Picos de Ancares. For sure I was lucky: I had a room, and a mule to ride, and learned Latin and the Lives of the Saints from Father Tomas, and was Don Francisco’s grandson. But, no question, Pedro had the snuggest crib. He was fourteen, two years older than I, and six inches taller.

  But I was heavier, and could throw him on the floor, three times out of five.

  ‘What’s the row?’ says I, pulling on my jacket – I hadn’t taken off my shirt, it was too cold to go to bed naked.

  I padded across the massive, creaking boards in my stocking feet to open the door. Always sleep with your door locked – if you’re fortunate enough to have a door – was one of the things Bob had taught me. Bob had been dead four years and the French had been gone for eight, but you never knew; maybe the French had invaded and come back, burning and snatching. If not the French, there was always a chance of armed brigands or guerrilleros, on the scavenge for anything they could pick up. There were plenty of queer culls in the mountains.

  ‘It’s me – P-Pedro,’ he called, shivering. ‘Santa Maria, am I glad I’m not you. Fancy having to sleep in this ice-house!’

  ‘Why the devil did you come, then? Dona Isadora would have your skin off.’

  I had thought my bed cold, but the air was much colder.

  ‘Great-aunt’s dying. She wants you.’

  ‘Dying? – How do you know?’

  Bernardina, his great-aunt, had been cook in my grandfather’s house ever since I was born. And long before. She was a huge woman, quick on her feet as a bull, with a bull’s little red eyes and neat ankles. She could rage like a bull, too, when she was drunk, but, most of the time, she was laughing, roaring out songs, cursing, hoisting huge trays in and out of her oven, giving a stir to all her pots; I found it hard to believe that she had even been taken sick. And as for dying, that seemed impossible. Could she have run her head against a stone doorpost, whilst chasing one of the maids with a skillet?

  ‘I wouldn’t tell a lie. It’s true enough,’ whimpered Pedro, pulling at me to hurry me. His hands were shaking, and all he did was unbalance me as I tried to stamp into a shoe, so that I put my foot down heavily, and a splinter from the floorboard ran into my toe.

  ‘Estupido!’ I snapped, but instead of taking offence, he said,

  ‘Father Tomas is with her, hearing her confession.’

  That settled it. Bernardina would never confess before she had to. No point in upsetting God, she said. And shovel-faced Father Tomas was not to be hoisted from his bed for a simple case of colic; she must be dying.

  But she had been in good health the evening before; had thrown a pan of onions clean across the kitchen because, she said, they were not hot enough to serve to Don Francisco for his supper. And she had also threatened to tell my grandfather what she thought of Dona Isadora’s tale-bearing ways. I do not know if she would really have done that, though. Perhaps it was having to keep a rein on her indignation that polished her off at last.

  A great cold fright took me. What’ll I do when she’s gone? In all this freezing barracks of a house, big enough to hold an army, filled with richness and silence, Bernardina was the only one who ever laughed or sang, the only one who ever gave me a friendly word, who looked as if it mattered to her whether I walked into a room or left it.

  No, that is not quite true. My great-aunt Isadora’s nostrils twitched, whenever she saw me, as if she smelt bad fish. And the kitchen brats muttered rude words under their breath when I came in to talk to Bernie – not aloud, any more, since I had knocked out three of Pedro’s teeth.

  If Bernardina goes, I might as well go too.

  But where?

  Down the stairs we crept. Not much need to worry about making a noise – the stairs were solid stone, wide enough to take a horse and carriage. Besides, all the old people, my grandparents and great-aunts, slept on the far side of the courtyard. Still, I went quietly. For three days I had been confined to my room as a punishment. I had tied the cord of Father Agustin’s habit to a lamp-stand in the chapel, so that he pulled the lamp over when he tried to stand up. Beaten by Father Tomas and no food until Saturday. It hadn’t been worth it, really. But you have to do something to keep your spirits up.

  Pedro had brought a candle with him but it wasn’t wanted now. Bright moonshine scalloped the cloistered side of the courtyard, where we stayed under the arches, for the wind was like a dagger; then alongside the chapel entrance, where a lamp always burned in a red glass shade; through a black-dark passage, then round the cloisters of another court, for the house was built around two, like a double-four domino.

  Pedro did not stop at the door of Bernardina’s clammy little room, which always smelt of the goose-grease she rubbed on her chilblains, and the raw onions she ate for her complexion. I said,

  ‘Where is she?’

  ‘She took a fancy to die on the stairs.’

  ‘On the stairs? Why there?’

  Bernie had always maintained that she was too fat to walk up and down stairs; which was why she chose to sleep on the ground floor; if the conde or the condesa or any of the senoras wished to speak to her, let them come down to her level, she said.

  ‘She thought she’d be nearer to God; or it would be easier for Him to find her; I don’t know,’ Pedro said, sniffing.

  So we went up again.

  Quite a steep little flight, this was; we were now in another section of the town wall (my grandfather’s house took up one whole corner of the town of Villaverde); and you could climb right up on to a walkway that led along the wall, or into a turret which looked out to where the French or the English might be coming to carry off all the poultry and mules, and drink all the wine.

  Bernie was not as far as the top, though. She had got herself perched about ten steps up, like a whale beached by a big wave at Finisterra. She was wrapped in a cloak and her feet, in felt slippers, stuck out like an untrussed pullet’s.

  Father Tomas was there with his sacred things, and the place, besides the usual draughty smell of cold wet stone, breathed strangely of incense and holy oil.

  Bernie shone like one of her own chickens she’d been a-basting.

  The minute I saw her I knew that Pedro had spoken the truth. Light from the full moon came through an arrow-slit, and Father Tomas had brought a rush-light in a holder, and by the mixed illumination I could see that she looked dreadful. Although she smiled at me and gave me a wink, I felt my heart open and close inside me, with a pain as bad as when Bob died.

  Father Tomas was mumbling Latin over her like a ball of string unwinding, but she interrupted him.

  ‘Oh, give over, Father, do, muchas gracias! You’ve done your best for me; if God wants a good cook, He knows where to find me. And if He doesn’t, I’ll hire myself somewhere else! Run along, now, Father; I daresay you’ve greased the way into heaven for me so I’ll slide in somehow. And I’ll put in a word for you if I get there. But now I want a private word with Senorito Felix.’

  Father Tomas spared me a glance cold as a slice of tombstone. ‘What’s that boy doing here?’ says he peevishly. ‘You are supposed to be confined to your chamber for impertinence and sacrilege.’

  ‘Vaya, vaya, you can’t refuse a dying woman’s wishes, Father,’ Bernie objected, heaving herself up like a sack of fodder, so that she nearly rolled off the side of the steps, which had no rail.

  Father Tomas gave a squawk of alarm.

  ‘Be careful, woman! Oh, very well – very well; Senorito Felix may approach and bid you goodbye. But you are not to be long, mind, and then he must return to his room immediately.’

  ‘Si, si, si! Now go and tell your beads somewhere else, Father, and take that little sniveller with you,’ Bernie said, pointing to Pedro.

  I have seldom seen a look so full of annoyance as the one Father Tomas gave me while he slowly collected his sacred things together and retreated down the steps. Then he went a-gliding away over the flagstones, with his black woollen robe swishing around him; you could always tell when he was near by that sound, and the smell of old greasy wool and the wintergreen ointment on his rheumatic knees.

  A couple of kitchen girls, Rosario and Isabella, had been fussing uselessly with bowls of hot water and towels; Bernie sent them packing too.

  ‘Is there any wine left in that jug, boy?’ she said to me. ‘Yes? Good! I’ve a fancy to die drunk, just in case there’s no wine where I’m going. Give us a tot. Now come closer.’

  So I climbed up another step or two. She groped about among the folds of the tent-like wrapper, and passed me a little bundle.

  ‘Wh-wh-what’s that?’ I asked. I stammer when I am upset; it is a stupid habit that I can’t shake off. It was horrible to see her lolling on the steps in that unlikely way, her face all grey and shiny, looking so different from the Bernie that I was used to find in the kitchen, tossing her fritters and roaring out wicked songs.

  ‘Things of your father’s,’ Bernie said. ‘Bob gave them to me when he died.’

  ‘Why didn’t he give them to me?’

  Bob had been my father’s batman. After my father – who was a captain in General John Moore’s army – had died at Los Nogales, Bob somehow made his way over the mountains to Villaverde, where my grandfather’s house was. How he did it, no one ever knew, for he, too, was terribly wounded: one leg shot away, one arm useless, a bullet lodged in his spine, so he was all doubled up. The journey took him months and months. But he managed. Bob was the bravest person I ever met. He managed the journey, and even lasted some years after that, hobbling about the stables, doctoring the horses, and telling me stories of my father. He died when I was eight. He’d been very good to me. I still hated for him to be dead.

  ‘He said to keep these for you till you were grown,’ croaked Bernardina. ‘He said, no use to burden you with them till you were a man, and able to fight for yourself. But I can’t do that, can I? I shan’t be here. And there’s no one about the house that I’d trust; those aunts of yours are a lot of canting old snakes in sheeps’ clothing – that Isadora would put poison in your garbanzos as soon as look at you! So you must just have the things now. There’s a lot of written stuff, but I haven’t read it, not I!’ She chuckled. I knew that she could not read a word. ‘Then,’ she said, ‘you will just have to decide for yourself.’

  ‘Decide what?’

  It was all too much for me to bear; in spite of gritting my teeth, clenching my fingers, and holding my breath, I could feel a great sob snap in my throat. Tears came bursting out of both eyes.

  ‘Oh, Bernie, please don’t die!’

  I was bitterly ashamed of myself. However much Father Tomas beat me for bad Latin – or for letting loose the pigs – or greasing the stairs, so that Dona Isadora slipped on them – I used to take pride in the fact that I never blubbered. Not even when Dona Isadora kept on and on about my being a Bad Seed and the death of my mother.

  ‘I must go, my poor little pumpkin,’ Bernie whispered hoarsely – her breathing was very awkward, her words came in bunches. ‘I’m not wild about it, either, to tell you the truth – but when they call you, you’ve got to flit. And there’s a bad thing in my heart, I can feel it – it’s not beating as it should. The question is, what are you to do? You don’t belong here, any ghost could see that. Bob always said that, if he’d been in better shape, he’d have taken you to England to your father’s folk. But he knew he’d not last the journey. He did try to write to them once, but with his right hand gone and his left hand crippled, he could hardly scratch out the words; likely the letter never went where it should. No answer came, that I know. Anyway, Bob used to say that a cold home was better than none.’

  Bob had been English, like my father; the English I speak I learned off him. But luckily he spoke Spanish as well, like a native, besides having such a wonderful gift with horses that, in spite of his one crippled arm, Don Francisco was glad to keep him on in the stable. Bob believed – he was the only one who did – that my parents really had been married. As they were both dead, they had no say in the matter. All my relatives in the big house were quite sure in their minds on the opposite side. My grandmother looked at me as if I gave her a pain, and Dona Isadora, my great-aunt, had masses said every single day for my mother who had died, they said, in a state of sin, after having given birth to me.

  Bob said that my father was Quality. ‘Captain Brooke wasn’t his real name,’ he told me. ‘Don’t you let those toffee-nosed Cabezadas put you down. Pooh to el senor Conde! An English baronite is worth half a dozen Spanish counts any day. You are as good as they are, Master Felix, and don’t you ever forget it.’

  ‘Perhaps these things of my father’s will tell me where to find his family,’ I said to Bernie, feeling the little bundle, which was wrapped in stained linen, thin and brittle with age and hot weather. My thumbs itched to untie it, but I felt it would be more dignified – as well as more polite – to wait till I was back in my own chamber.

  ‘Maybe – they will,’ wheezed Bernardina. ‘And my advice to you, hijo, is, not to stay here, where you’re despised. Leave this place and find your father’s kin. You’ve a right – to choose – where to hang your hat. You know what I always say – go saddle the sea – ’

  She stopped speaking. A look of pure concentration came over her face – as if she were trying to remember some important name; or as if – I thought stupidly – she found herself obliged to dig out a bit of gristle with her tongue from between her back teeth –

  ‘Manolo!’ exclaimed Bernardina suddenly.

  She lifted herself up, looking past me.

  I twisted my head round, thinking someone must have walked up silently behind my back. But nobody was there. Then I remembered that Man
olo was the name of Bernie’s baby, who had died long before I was born –

  One of the kitchen girls, coming back with a hot brick in a cloth, screamed piercingly and dropped the brick on the flagstones.

  I turned my head again in time to see Bernardina topple slowly and heavily off the step on which she was balanced; it was like seeing a great log, which had been floating down a millstream, suddenly up-end itself and go over the milldam.

  Isabella flung herself forward; I scrambled back down the stairs. But we both knew that what we were doing was no use. I think Bernie died before she fell. There she lay, on the granite flags, her great mouth open and her small eyes staring, still with that look of surprise. Dead as the stone on which she lay.

  Father Tomas swished back, tut-tutting irritably, and pushed us aside.

  ‘Go to your room, boy! And you, girl, fetch the others – fetch some strong women, and the porter, and one of the gardeners – tt, what a way to die – ’

  I went away quietly. There was no point in staying.

  Taking a different passage, I walked into the big kitchen, where Bernie had been mistress all my life long. It was a grand room. The walls and floor were covered with shiny red tiles, decorated by little blue-and-white diamonds and crosses. The fire burned on a wide platform, the step up to it marked out by more tiles, green-and-white ones, these; and a two-foot-wide shelf ran most of the way round the room. There was still plenty of fire in the hearth, and some candles burning, but nobody in the room; I daresay they had all run off to lay out Bernie and say prayers in the chapel. I pulled up a stool to the fireside and sat there shivering. I couldn’t believe yet that Bernie was dead. Every minute I expected her to come roaring in through the door, calling out, ‘Hey, boy! Hola, my little tiger! You want a merienda? Glass of beer? Bit of bread and chocolate? Just a minute, then – ’

  It looked as if she had been making herself a merienda just before she had been taken ill. A pestle and mortar stood on the big scrubbed table with some chocolate in it she’d been pounding, and a platter held a pastry-cake sprinkled with salt, my favourite food. Maybe she was going to sneak it up to me in my room. Now I couldn’t have touched a crumb of it. I kept thinking: ‘She’s sure to come in soon. No she isn’t, she’s dead. She’s sure to come in soon – ’